Decree Finalises Defamation Case against Fr Dennis Sudla

The following statement was read out to the congregation before yesterday’s 10am Mass.

The St Vincent’s Parish Bulletin distributed on 19-20 August 2006 included an extraordinary item entitled "Apology", which was presented without explanation. This issue of the Bulletin was in very short supply for the Sunday 10am Mass and had been printed on two-week-old "Saving Word" stationery. This deterred many people from picking up a copy. Nevertheless none were left by 10:05am.

Equally extraordinarily, on the preceding Friday the parish priest handed an envelope containing a money order for $200 made out to Sharing the Meal, bearing the name Dennis Sudla, and issued at the Redfern post office on 16 August 2006, to one of the Meal helpers.

The following should help fill in the background.

The Bulletin item was no doubt prompted by a court case that has only very recently been finalised by issue of a Decree. The case pertained to repeated unprofessional behaviour by an Assistant Parish Priest towards a long-term member of this parish. It was heard, not before the Civil Courts, but the Catholic Church’s Ecclesiastical Tribunal which deals with issues related to Church (or Canon) Law.

The Church’s judicial system provides the means whereby Catholics can vindicate and defend the rights they enjoy in the Church. However, Church law requires all members of the Church, and especially bishops, to strive earnestly, with due regard for justice, to avoid litigation among themselves and to settle disputes promptly and without rancour.

Between July 2004 and May 2005 Fr Dennis Sudla, the assistant priest in the parish of Redfern and member of the Neocatechumenal Way, repeatedly defamed a parishioner, Ms Clare Maguire. Having failed in her attempts to resolve the matter through numerous non-judicial processes, Ms Maguire was left with no other option but to lodge a petition before the Church’s Regional Tribunal for New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. She had tried nine different agencies within the Church hierarchy over a period of approximately two years. Most efforts were redirected to the Archbishop, where they foundered.

The case took almost 18 months to run its course. It involved the preparation of a petition, the gathering of character references and witness statements, and a personal interview. The outcome is a 19 page judgement with findings, list of recompense and recommendations.

The Tribunal’s definitive judgement was that Dennis Sudla had defamed Clare Maguire by publicly insulting and denigrating her. He did not exercise his right to appeal the decision of the Regional Tribunal.

Church law requires that anyone who unlawfully causes harm to another is obliged to repair the damage done. Clare Maguire petitioned the Tribunal that Fr Sudla be required to offer her a public apology for defaming her. Although she had the right also to seek monetary compensation, Clare specifically requested that she not be awarded any such compensation for the harm she suffered. Instead, she requested that Fr Sudla be required to make a monetary donation to Sharing the Meal.

The Church’s procedures require the Tribunal to issue a specific direction that its judgement be executed. Before any direction was issued, the aforementioned Parish Bulletin carried a brief apology from Fr Sudla, in which he made no reference to the decision of the Tribunal. Moreover, he said in his apology that he "did not intend in any way to defame" Clare Maguire. His statement is contrary to the judgement of the Tribunal that found Fr Sudla was aware he was violating Clare’s right to her good name and that he intended to do so.

It is the Church’s teaching that the right to a good name is one of the universal and inviolable rights of the human person. All members of the Church must be held accountable if they violate that right.

We are grateful that this matter has been brought to a just conclusion through the Tribunal, but dismayed at the personal cost of seeking justice within the Church: at the drain on physical and emotional health.

We are saddened by the dismissive attitude of so much of the Church towards fair and honest criticism when there are so many other issues to resolve in this place. After more than three years it’s time that our Archbishop made an effort to listen to and genuinely work with us towards equitable solutions.

Cardinal Pell says he is willing to go to Redfern to sort out the problem, but months of negotiations have gotten nowhere. "The parish clergy continue to have my full support," he said. "They have been subject to regular abuse, harassment and provocation, often during the Mass itself."

The Australian, August 05, 2006

Perhaps he might begin by fairly and honestly reconciling these words with the Tribunal findings.

Len De Lorenzo
On behalf of the St Vincent’s Community
22 October 2006
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